Thank you, Mr. President,
Ladies and gentlemen, Members of Parliament,
A few words to add to what President Juncker has just said.
The British negotiators have put forward their proposals and, with their team –who are competent and professional – they have endeavoured to explain and clarify these proposals during several technical meetings over the past days.
o To say things simply, frankly, and objectively, we are not – at the moment I am speaking to you – at the point of reaching an agreement.
o However, time is pressing. We are one week away from the European Council, and after that only a few days until the 31 October. This was the date agreed with the previous government for the United Kingdom's orderly withdrawal from the European Union. An orderly withdrawal is a lot better than a disorderly withdrawal.
The UK's proposals raise three major problems.
The first issue concerns the question of the border and checks on goods on the island of Ireland.
Since his arrival in office, Mr. Johnson's government has rejected the backstop, which is a sort of insurance policy or safety net which we agreed with Theresa May's government. This is a fact.
At the same time, the Prime Minister recognises that regulatory alignment for goods is essential between Northern Ireland and the European Union. We agree on this point.
However, in order to resolve the problem of customs checks, the United Kingdom has proposed that we simply sign up to a legal commitment to avoid “in all circumstances customs and regulatory checks or any physical infrastructure at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
We obviously share this objective, which is one of the objectives of the backstop, but what is being asked in reality is accepting a system, which is not yet developed or tested, of dispersed checks on the island of Ireland. This system would largely rely on:
o Exemptions and derogations from the Union Customs Code,
o Technology which remains to be developed,
o Changes to international law under the Common Transit Convention,
o A new system of compliance, without the guarantees included in the Protocol.
We need serious and rigorous customs and regulatory checks at every border of our Single Market and Customs Union.
In Ireland, like anywhere else, we need operational, real, credible controls.
It is the credibility of the Single Market that is in question, and therefore its credibility vis-à-vis consumers, businesses and third countries with whom we have agreements.
The second issue concerns the need to find legally operational solutions.
The Protocol creates a safety net that clarifies the applicable regime on the island of Ireland. This safety net is legally operational, because it would apply until we have found another solution.
By proposing to remove this safety net and find alternative solutions during the transition period, i.e. later, the UK's proposal does not provide the same security as the backstop.
- An example : there is no real solution in the UK's proposal for small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs), except for proposing a general derogation.
- Second example: what would happen if the Joint Committee – the place where the UK wants to send all unanswered questions for the moment – cannot find an agreement during the transition? According to the UK, the solution would then depend on unilateral measures to be taken by the UK and the EU.
There would be a significant risk for the integrity of the Single Market, because the UK's proposals would commit us to never having checks at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which become two different jurisdictions.
The third issue of disagreement concerns the UK's proposal on “consent”.
We continue to regret the absence of Stormont for the past two and an half years in order to give a solid and strong Northern Irish voice in the negotiations.
In the current Protocol, we have foreseen mechanisms with the UK which would allow for representation from Northern Ireland.
We are ready to examine new ideas to give the Northern Irish institutions a more important role in the application of the Protocol, with respect of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.
But today, the UK's proposition consists of making the application of the Protocol conditional on a unilateral decision by the Northern Irish institutions to decide:
o From the beginning, from the day after the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, not to activate the proposed solution for Northern Ireland.
o And, if the Protocol entered into force, this solution would be brought into question again every four years.
The UK government's proposal, as it stands, which we cannot accept, would involve replacing an operational, practical, legal solution with a hypothetical and provisional one.
Finally, there is a fourth issue which does not concern the Withdrawal Agreement but the Political Declaration, which describes the future relationship that we want to build in all different areas, deal or no deal.
Today, Mr. Johnson has asked us to focus our future economic relationship only on a basic free trade deal, and not on the other options that we left open in the Political Declaration. He has asked us to remove the reference to a level playing field – a very important point –, which we agreed with Theresa May. These are the ground rules, a foundation of rules in the area of tax, state aid, social rights, environmental rights and consumer rights.
And therefore, we are faced with this request for a basic free trade deal, which runs the risk of regulatory competition, even fiscal, social or environmental dumping. We will not accept this.
That is why I have said that the ambition and level of our future free trade agreement with the UK will be proportional to the level of long-lasting commitments taken by the UK authorities regarding common ground rules.
Ladies and gentlemen, Member of Parliament,
Nobody in London or elsewhere can be shocked by the fact that the EU wants to obtain operational, legally solid, sustainable solutions in the Withdrawal Agreement.
Because Brexit creates concrete, precise, serious problems, especially in Ireland
Faced with these immediate problems, we need today, and not tomorrow, precise, operational and legally binding solutions for both sides.
In this important and grave moment, we remain on our side – as always – calm, vigilant and constructive. We also remain respectful of the UK and of its leaders.
We will remain, with my team – in permanent cooperation with the European Parliament and all Member States – available 24/7 over the coming days.
It is in that spirit that I will meet the UK Minister Steve Barclay again tomorrow, and we will continue to work, scrupulously respecting the mandate that has been given to us by the European Council and the resolutions of the European Parliament.
Even if it is difficult, if there is good will from both sides, an agreement remains possible with the UK.